An espionage campaign uncovered by Israeli cybersecurity company Check Point shows just how persistent advanced threat groups can be.
Back in 2015, cybersecurity firms ThreatConnect and Defense Group investigated the Naikon APT group, which had been targeting government agencies in a number of countries around the South China Sea, as well as international organisations such as the United Nations Development Programme and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
The firms linked the group to a specific unit of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Army Unit 78020, and even to a particular individual involved. After their research was published, the group appeared to go quiet.
Five years on, though, and Naikon is back in the spotlight - and with techniques more sophisticated than before, says Check Point. In a campaign that's believed to have been going on ever since the previous investigation, it's been targeting Australia, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar and Brunei using 'stepping-stone' attacks.
New backdoor detected
According to Check Point, Naikon has now been using a new backdoor named Aria-body, allowing it to take control of victims’ networks and copy, delete or create files.
In some cases, it's deployed an RTF file utilizing the RoyalRoad weaponizer; in others, it's been using archives with a legitimate executable that sideloads a malicious DLL to deliver the payload, or else a malware dropper.
And after gathering data, files and contacts, it then launches attacks from one of the breached entities to try and infect another.
"This includes not only locating and collecting specific documents from infected computers and networks within government departments, but also extracting data from removable drives, taking screenshots and keylogging, and of course harvesting the stolen data for espionage," says the team.
"And if that wasn’t enough, to evade detection when accessing remote servers through sensitive governmental networks, the group compromised and used servers within the infected ministries as command and control servers to collect, relay and route the stolen data."
In fact, the group could have remained under the radar for even longer, had it not made a mistake. Check Point was alerted to the campaign when it spotted a malicious email sent from a government embassy in the Asia Pacific region to the government of Western Australia. It was only when the wrong email address was used and the email bounced back that the attack was discovered.
Campaigns run undetected
Only last month, researchers at Blackberry uncovered five separate APT groups with ties to the Chinese government that, it says, had been exploiting Linux servers for eight years.
As John McClurg, Blackberry's chief information security officer points out, "This research paints a picture of an espionage effort targeting the very backbone of large organizations’ network infrastructure that is more systemic than has been previously acknowledged."
This, and Check Point’s new discovery, raise the question of just how many other undetected campaigns Chinese actors may be running.